There’s a wonderful introduction to psychodynamic theory in Richard Littlejohn’s column today, which was ostensibly looking at the G20 protests:
“Apart from picking a fight with the police and smashing a few windows, what did any of them hope to achieve? This wasn’t about saving the planet, or bringing down capitalism, it was an exercise in self-indulgence.”
So, following Freud: the unconscious mind governs our life and protects us from pain and anxiety using any or all of nine defences. Above is defence number one – projection, the seeing of your own faults in others. There can be almost no job more self indulgent than that of newspaper pundit, resting as it does on the idea that your thoughts on any given subject are any more valid than any other uninformed, unthinking reactionary. By attacking those who were seemingly out exercising their democratic right to alert their elected representatives to the strength of their feeling, Richard highlights his own sense of discomfort with his own career choice.
“Brand epitomises a generation of self-obsessed exhibitionists who dress up their self-gratification by pretending to have a social conscience.”
Defence number two, displacement – Richard moves his anger from it’s object onto another object, to avoid facing up to the real root of the anxiety. The above quote shows this twice – notice the disconnect between the exhibitionism of Brand, which is undoubted, and that of a single person in a crowd on tens of thousands of people. In both cases the shallowness of his anger is seen by the inadequacy of its explanation – how likely is it that people protesting under the banner of ‘Jobs, Justice, Climate’ are doing it because they want to be noticed as individuals? To do so would be self-defeating, because for the protest to be noticed it would need to be sufficiently large to subsume the individual – the exhibitionism would depend on its bearer’s obscurity. Although you could claim that an individual exhibits themselves within their peer group purely by attending, this is like accusing someone who goes to the cinema every week of being an exhibitionist – although they may be attending purely so they can wow their friends with cinematic knowledge, chances are they actually just like films. With Brand, he in no way attempts to dress up his self-gratification, it is separate from his claims to social conscience, so the latter is a poor reason for Richard’s distaste of him.
“Airport expansion, polar bears, the plight of the Palestinians. It’s all cost-free compassion and an excuse for a punch-up in public. They can protest all they like in the certain knowledge that they won’t have to make any personal sacrifices.”
Defence three, intellectualisation – Richard turns the feeling into a thought, trying to deal with the anger intellectually rather than dealing with its roots. Notice again the implausibility of his explanation, the attempt to theorise to justify his anger. It is not cost free to take a day off work to protest, it is a sacrifice to give time and money to a cause, or to alter your lifestyle to avoid things like the need for extra airports or dying polar bears. It is also more plausible, in the face of the evidence against airport expansion, for global warming and for the plight of the Palestinians, and in the face of an unresponsive and (by Littlejohn’s own lights) unrepresentative parliamentary system that people take to the streets because they feel that this is the best way of giving their position weight, or of drawing attention to their cause. The relative implausibility of Richard’s alternative explanation screams post hoc theorising to fit the facts and anger simultaneously, disregarding any attempt to address the concerns of those he objects to, or even to properly examine what those concerns are.
“They profess concern about Third World poverty while dressing in designer hoodies and trainers knocked out by wage slaves paid a pittance in Far Eastern sweatshops.”
Defence four, rationalisation – attempting to talk away something you’ve done wrong. Throughout his column, Richard has been discussing the protesters as a single mind, and here we see his attempt to shirk responsibility for his own actions by suggesting that all the protesters are doing the same. Quite aside from this being something he is not in a position to claim (generalisation being a good example of defence five, regression – retreating to an earlier stage of psychosexual development to avoid the trauma, here both in the sense of retreating to simpler, more childlike arguments and in the sense of becoming more obstinate and compulsive, a return to the anal stage of development), this sidesteps their positions and their arguments. Even were they gilded hypocrites themselves, this does not devalue their arguments, but only themselves – Richard may still have a position to defend. His complete failure to engage with their substantive points suggests an acute awareness of this culpability, and a desire to avoid facing it.
“Still, it’s not about the downtrodden, it’s all about them, so they can feel good about themselves when, after a hard day’s rioting, they return to their computers in their comfy bedrooms in their centrally heated homes. “
Continuing, as he does, to conflate Brand and a body of concerned individuals, we reach defence six – denial, which Richard exemplifies throughout the column as he continues to direct his anger sideways. Who is feeling bad about themselves in their comfy bedroom in their centrally heated home? Richard seems to suggest here that he attaches some sort of guilt to this lifestyle, while simultaneously criticising those that find release through the confrontation with their elected masters. In denying the cure he denies the illness, pretending that there is no problem to fix. Here though, the guard is let down – can it be that Littlejohn, with an existence more comfortable than most of his readers could dream of having, with the self-concern he projects onto the protesters, feels guilty? Does he feel a kinship with the impotence of the protesters as he bangs off another column that will change nothing? The denial of problems to fix and guilt to avoid would suggest so.
Which brings us to the final obvious defence Littlejohn uses¹, sublimation – the constructive defence, as he transforms his pain into a column. In writing it he has protected himself from the pain of facing up to his unconscious conflict, that feeling of impotence and impostering, the sense of shame at his own self regard. While we should be pleased that he has protected himself for today, this failure to look himself in the eye will only extend the problem, leaving it to confront him anew tomorrow. The anger of Littlejohn’s columns is saddening because it makes the world a worse place – arguably we should be equally sad about the internal world it reflects.
¹ The two missing ones being repression – the denial of the uncomfortable thoughts, and reaction formation – the doing the opposite of what is upsetting you.